Steven Johnson recently wrote about Social Traffic Jams. This is where you go out for a short predefined task- like picking up the milk from your nearby store but you meet your neighbor and a conversation ensues causing you to be late at your next appointment. This doesn’t just happen in suburban neighborhoods where you are likely to see your neighbors. It happens every day in the halls of every company- a 2 minute bathroom break can turn into a 30 minute discussion on the Mets collapse. It also happens at car pool pickup. At the cleaners. At the gym. Every task can take longer than expected when confronted by a traffic Jam.
The problem isn’t just that you’re late to your next appointment. The problem is that your friend can get offended at the curt conversations and worse you may miss out by not taking the conversation to it’s logical end (so how did he end up saving $40 a month on cable?)
Here’s some tricks I use to avoid social traffic jams:
1. Schedule Gaps
It’s always risky to schedule multiple tasks too close to each other. Like my friend who scheduled his son’s PT appointment right after the first day orientation. He was forced to leave school even though his son was having a fun time. We all do it, trying to be more efficient, but it gets us in trouble. The solution is to put flexible time between appointments. Just have a plan in case you don’t overrun on your first appointment (start the next appointment early? read? eat? take a walk?). My friend could have checked out the park next door to school.
2. Travel Off Peak
For me shopping time isn’t social time. I try going to the store at off hours. The lines are shorter and it’s less likely I’ll get side tracked.
3. Divert the Traffic
Schedule the person for a more convenient time. You might say, “I’m so glad I ran into you but I need to run. Come on over Saturday afternoon- I really want to catch up.”
4. Use Car Pool Lanes
Do your tasks with a friend. Realize it will probably take you longer but commuting time will be more fun and you may learn something (there’s such a thing as microwave ready frozen pancakes in 20 seconds?!?). Plus when you’re with a friend you have an easier “out” from the next jam, “I’m here with my friend Joe, I don’t want to hold him up. Let’s catch up on…”
5. Check the Traffic Report
Before you head out, check the time. See if the timing is bad. Is that when the school bus comes so you’ll see your neighbor outside? Is it when coworkers are coming back from lunch? Push off your task a few minutes and avoid needing to give excuses or be unfriendly. I’m not suggesting you become anti-social, just that you have your social contacts when you’re not going to need to cut it short.
6. Respect Time
Always try to be on time. This way if you tell people you need too go, they understand. They know that you’ll be on time when meeting with them.
What’s your Taffic Jam Solution?